Interview: Choi Wooshik on Joining the International Cast of OKJA

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
Interview: Choi Wooshik on Joining the International Cast of OKJA
Choi Wooshik’s outstanding performance in 2014’s haunting, heartbreaking SET ME FREE not only won him the Busan International Film Festival Actor of the Year, and the prestigious Blue Dragon awards, it also gained him a place in the incredible international cast of Director Bong Joon-ho’s OKJA, as a rebellious avatar for Bong’s message to today’s youth.
In his first overseas interview, Choi spoke with LMD about his days on the OKJA set, working with US stars, Steven Yeun and Paul Dano, and the possibility of future western projects.
The Lady Miz Diva:  Please tell us how you came to OKJA? 
Choi Wooshik:  There was this movie called SET ME FREE.  It happened to be that one of Director Bong’s assistants said, “Oh, there is this guy who played in SET ME FREE.  This guy does a lot of dramas.”  But Director Bong doesn’t really watch dramas, so the assistant kind of introduced me to him, telling him about SET ME FREE, and that he would love it, and asking him to watch it and maybe bring me in to audition.  Then he watched SET ME FREE and he called me right after.
The thing was, that Kim, the truck driver, had to speak English, but at the time when they called me, they didn’t really know that I had lived in Canada for years, so it was like, “Oh my God, you speak English?  That’s so cool.  That’s perfect!”
LMD:  Tell us about the filming OKJA.  What was your preparation like?  How many days were you on set?
CW:  In preproduction, we had about two months of preparing the hair, the costumes, and rehearsing our acting.  For other movies, two months of preproduction, well, yeah, I get it, but for me, I had such a short period of acting scenes, but I still had two months preparing it.  Bong was so detailed; he wants perfectly detailed acting.  
Actually, I think it was actually more than two months, without acting; we just had to prepare our appearances for two months.  On set, I think I had 15 days of shooting.  It was a short scene, but the whole scene that I had was involved in the action and the visual effects.  I did have one day of shooting in Vancouver, so I think it was actually 16 days.
LMD:  When you read the script, what was it about your character, Kim, the truck driver, that stood out to you? 
CW:  It was working with Bong, the chance to work with him.  It was also the opportunity to work with an international crew.  I heard that the camera director would be Darius Khondji.  It was like I had to do this, I was really sure. 
LMD:  Director Bong seems to be someone who appreciates collaboration and what artists can bring to the table.  Is there anything you brought to the character that wasn’t there before?
CW:  At first I thought that Kim was just a guy who learned English in Korea by himself, and then he just wanted to go outside of Korea.  And that’s how I acted it at first, but Bong is so detailed in everything, and he made my character more mysterious seeming.  It helped me a lot.  He wanted Kim to be really specific – this mysterious guy.
In the part where I had to speak with Yoon Je-moon, Bong wanted the scene to be really normal looking, but how Bong would view it, so the acting and everything – the look on my face and my movements – he just gave me a very detailed direction, so I could just do it.  It was really fun.
LMD:  I feel like in all the political messages throughout OKJA, Kim is sort of his own political or societal message.  He seems quite rebellious, and not deferential to his superior, or his elders.  He doesn’t care about the fact that he has a steady job, even though it’s so hard for young people to find work in South Korea.  What gives him such confidence to strike out the way he does?
CW:  I think Kim is Bong’s message to every teenager growing up in Korea.  I think he wants young people in their 20s that live in Korea to be passionate people ,and be more outrageous with dreams.  Kim just wants to be the guy who goes out there, and he does by the end of the movie, right?  Kim is Bong’s message to us.
LMD:  Please talk about working with the great veteran actor and longtime Bong collaborator, Yoon Je-moon?
CW:  This is my first time working with him.  He’s just so relaxed on the set.  I was so nervous working with the foreign staff, with Bong, working with Darius Khondji, and with the Hollywood cast members; but he was just like, ‘I’m Yoon Je-moon, and I don’t care.  I know I can’t act any better, so I’m not really that nervous.’  It was kind of that vibe.  I was shaking.  I was like, “Oh my God.  There’s Paul Dano. There’s Steven {Yeun}.  This is great.”  But he would say, “Mm, let’s just do this and get it over with.” {Laughs}  He’s so cool.
LMD:  Tell us a little bit about your experience working with the Hollywood cast members.  What did you observe and watching them?
CW:  It was a great experience to work with them, but it kind of felt like we had a lot of stuff to do.  {Laughs} Cos when we were shooting the scene where I was talking with Yoon Je-moon, and we were driving – we shot that over two hours, just Yoon Je-moon and I.  After that, Paul Dano had maybe five minutes of shooting after us, and while he was acting, that look in his eyes and everything - he just stole the whole scene from us.
We were acting so hard, and just spouting gibberish in Korean and English and trying to be funny, but Paul just looked at us for five seconds and he stole a whole scene from us.  I was like, wow, that’s acting - that look.  I don’t know what he was doing, but we had a lot of stuff to do to follow up on that.
I mean, acting, I think the Koreans do have a lot of good sense for acting, but Hollywood is different.  They have this look – I don’t know quite how to say it, but they are so relaxed and confident.  It was so cool.  It was a really great experience to work with them.
LMD:  Some of the things that you’re saying about the difference between you and Mr. Yoon, and your impression of Paul Dano and the other Western actors is reminding me of a recent interview I did with Director Kim Jee-woon for MILJUNG/AGE OF SHADOWS, where he talked about how Korean actors tend to over emote or act with a lot of sentimentality.  Do you understand what he means by that?
CW:  At first, when we were acting with the whole the whole Hollywood cast, at that moment I felt like, ‘Oh, this is the difference.’  It’s a cultural difference.  Let’s just say this is a scene, all right; Koreans will think that this is emotional and the level of emotion will be may be a nine or ten.  A foreign actor will be like, ‘Mm, maybe four or five.’  So, the whole cultural difference really is different.
Korean actors try to shake the audience’s emotions; they try so hard to express their emotions.  So, good actors in Korea, they hide their emotions, like Song Kang-ho.  When he acts, he doesn’t show his emotions, and I think people like that.
LMD:  So, has the experience of OKJA and working with the western actors, made you think differently about your own acting technique?
CW:  I gained a lot of confidence after that.  As you can hear, my personality is not really cool, so I’m not very confident, but after this experience, I gained a lot of confidence just by looking at the foreign staff working.  Everyone is so professional at their level, right?  
But in Korea, because there are culture differences and elders get respect even though they’re not at the level of getting respect, but they still do because they’re older than you; sometimes it’s really hard to work with Korean staffs because of the culture difference.
LMD:  The strong deference to age and status must be very difficult for artists in a field where collaboration can be so key?
CW:  Right.  And I grew up in Canada, also; it’s been harder for me.  Working with the foreign staffs in OKJA, it was just perfect.  That world was perfect.  Like, that was what I wanted so much.
And Bong -- inside, I don’t think he’s Korean. {Laughs}  He’s so chill, he’s so relaxed.  He knows how to control actors.  Maybe I looked nervous, or maybe I had this ‘Help me’ face, Director Bong just came up to me, and he just heard me out so well.  He just talked to me and told me, “You don’t have to be nervous about everything.”  He’s just so…  I don’t know if I will ever work with Bong again, but he is one of the greatest guys I ever met in Korea.
LMD:  Is OKJA perhaps your first step into making more films with international casts?
CW:  I mean, one of my dreams was for me to make the transition to foreign projects, but it’s going to be really hard.  I’d have to grind myself really hard:  I’d have to change some of my appearance.  I have to work on my presentation, I have to get rid of my Asian accent {Laughs}.
I was talking about this to Steven - he’s my hyung now.  He knew about that what it meant to be the hyung – “hyung” means brother in Korean.  He knew about that stuff, and he was so cool with it, and he just told me - because I haven’t watched the movie yet - so he came up to me and said “Hyung, you did so good.  Your scenes were so funny.”  I’ve been telling him that I really want to go to the States and pursue my career there.  So, he was just telling me about the agencies and management.
It will be really hard work, and I’m ready to do that work, but it will be really hard.  There are a lot of Asian actors that are there already, grinding so hard.
OKJA opens in cinemas and streams on Netflix on June 28th.
Special thanks to Mr. Dooho Choi of Kate Street Picture Company for his invaluable assistance with this interview.
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Bong Joon HoChoi WooshikOkjaPaul DanoSteven YeunYoon Je Moon

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